The Essence of Being an Architect

There are many skills frameworks out there that tell us what skills we should have for ‘doing architecture’. My company has (at least) one and I’m sure yours does as well. There are also organisations that specialise in creating such frameworks (check out the Skills Framework for the Information Age for example). Whilst there are some very specific skills that software architects need (developing applications using xyz programming language, building systems using a particular ERP package and so on) which come and go as technology evolves there are some enduring skills which I believe all architects must acquire as they progress in their careers. What I refer to as being the essence of being an architect. Seth Godin recently posted a blog entry called What’s high school for? where he listed 10 things all schools should be teaching that should sit above any of the usual stuff kids get taught (maths, chemistry, history etc). A sort of list of meta-skills if you like. Borrowing from, and extending, this list gives me my list of essential architect skills.

  1. How to focus intently on a problem until it’s solved. There is much talk these days about how the internet, the TV networks and the print media are leading to a dumbed down society in which we have an inability to focus on anything for longer than 30 minutes. Today’s business problems are increasingly complex and often require prolonged periods of time to really focus on what the problem is before charging in with a (software) solution. Unfortunately the temptation is always often to provide the cheapest or the quickest to market solution. You need to fight against these pressures and stay focused on the problem until it is solved.
  2. How to read critically. As architects we cannot hope to understand everything there is to know about every software product, technology or technique that is out there. Often we need to rely on what vendors tell us about their products. Clearly there is a danger here that they tell us what we, or our clients, want to hear glossing over faults or features that are more ‘marketechture’ than architecture. Learn how to read vendor product descriptions and whitepapers with a critical eye and ask difficult questions.
  3. The power of being able to lead groups of peers without receiving clear delegated authority. The role of an architect is to build solutions by assembling components in new and interesting ways. You are the person who needs to both understand what the business wants and how to translate those ‘wants’ into technology. Business people, by and large, cannot tell you how to do that. You need to lead your peers (both business people and technologists) to arrive at an effective solution.
  4. How to persuasively present ideas in multiple forms, especially in writing and before a group. Obvious really, you can have the greatest idea in the world but if you cannot present it properly and effectively it will just stay that, an idea.
  5. Project management, self-management and the management of ideas, projects and people. How to manage your and others time to stay focused and deliver what the client wants in a timely fashion.
  6. An insatiable desire (and the ability) to learn more. Forever! This job cannot be done without continuous learning and acquiring of knowledge. Everyone has their own learning style and preferences for how they acquire knowledge, find out what your style is and deploy it regularly. Don’t stick to IT, I’ve discussed the role of the versatilist extensively (see here for example). Be ‘V’ shaped not ‘T’ shaped.
  7. The self-reliance that comes from understanding that relentless hard work can be applied to solve problems worth solving. Belief in ones ideas and the ability to deploy them when all around you are doubting you is probably one of the hardest skills to acquire. There is a fine balance between arrogance and self-belief. In my experience this is not an easily repeatable skill. Sometimes you will be wrong!
  8. Know how to focus on what is important and to ignore what is not. If you have not heard of Parkinson’s Law of Triviality take a look at it.
  9. Know who the real client is and focus on satisfying him/her/them. There can be lots of distractions in our working lives, and I’m not just talking about twittering, blogging (sic) and the rest of the social networking gamut. Projects can sometimes become too inward focused and lose track of what they are meant to be delivering. We live in a world where numbers have achieved ascendency over purpose. We can sometimes spend too much time measuring, reviewing and meeting targets rather than actually doing. I love this quote from Deming: “If you give a manager a numerical target, he’ll make it, even if he has to destroy the company in the process”. There is little merit in a well executed project that no one wants the output from.
  10. Use software/system delivery lifecycle (SDLC) processes wisely. SDLC’s are meant to be enablers but can end up being disablers! Always customise an SDLC to fit the project not the other way around.

If all of this seems hard work that’s because it is. As Steven Pressfield says in his book The War of Art:

The essence of professionalism is the focus upon the work and its demands, while we are doing it, to the exclusion of all else.

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3 thoughts on “The Essence of Being an Architect

  1. […] I originally thought of calling this “A Cloud Service Based Development Process” however I think the word ‘Cloud’ is redundant. Whilst this process could be used for developing services “in the cloud” it is actually a generic process that can be used for developing services wherever they may actually be deployed. The process is based on three major components, all of which are in the public domain. All I’m doing is what architects are supposed to do, namely assemble components in new and interesting ways. […]

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